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He's the most bodacious rebel to come out of Music City's narrow corridors since David Allan Coe, but Travis Tritt has done one thing Coe hasn't: sell millions of records, real quick. See, those folks in Tennessee don't suffer independent insolents or musical infidels--and they certainly don't cotton to those who cause internal commotion or pick on fastidiously manufactured superstars.
Unless, of course, they sell millions of records.
And this Travis Tritt has done. Three albums, three hunks of platinum hanging in his Dallas, Georgia, den. Clearly, with all the tumult charged to Tritt's tab these past few years, the proprietors of the primrose plantation they call Nashville would normally have cast this noisy nonconformist out until he learned to hoe a row like the rest of its humble servants.
But this son of Marietta, Georgia, has been able to dodge the whip of Music City's overseers with a bushel of big hits that began with 1989's clever "Country Club" and has continued through his most recent chartmaker, "Lord Have Mercy on the Workin' Man."
"I can't help but speak my mind," the country-rock star says during an on-the-road telephone conversation from his bus. "Once I can't, I'm gone."
It's hard to believe Tritt can do anything more to tick off the leisure-suited lumps along Music Row. Just since the new decade dawned, Tritt has managed to get a high-powered television producer canned, insult a certain butt-wigglin' contemporary and thoroughly piss off the legions out of Nashville. He's not trying to be mean, he says. Just honest.
Tritt's primary allegiance has always been directed toward those who don blue collars--not as a marketing gimmick, but because it's his own personal pedigree. In the classic country tradition, he began as a soloist for a children's choir at his church and taught himself to play the guitar at 8. At 14, he wrote his first song. Tritt graduated from high school in Marietta in 1981, got married and took a job loading trucks for an air-conditioning and heating company. While he grew to manage the business, his marriage failed. And the grind of working by day and playing the bars at night got old. Decision: Quit the real gig and see just how far the music would take him. He worked area clubs, trying to wedge his way into the business in the toughest possible fashion: playing solo and performing his own songs.
"It didn't really occur to me to do it any other way," Tritt admits.
Those local shows were lively and rockin', showing both his earliest influences, including George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, and that of teenage heroes like Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Poco, Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers. Although the regional Warner Bros. representative who first noticed Tritt was attracted primarily by his writing abilities, the performance side of Tritt's talents finally clinched the deal. His subsequent demos were so impressive that famed manager Ken Kragen took on Tritt's account--his first rookie in decades.
After "Country Club," the title track of his inaugural album, reached the Top 10, the follow-up single, "Help Me Hold On," made it all the way up, as did "I'm Gonna Be Somebody" and "Drift Off to Dream," cementing his stature as a bona fide country star. Tritt's second album, It's All About to Change, spawned another slew of hits, including "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," the latter written upon his second divorce.
Then the real fun began.
When a reporter asked him what he thought of Billy Ray Cyrus and his monster hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," Tritt responded that, while he'd never met Cyrus, he had seen the video and heard the song.
"I don't care for either one," Tritt answered frankly. "It sounded kinda goofy to me. And the video of him getting out of a limo and people trying to tear his clothes off--for his very first video--it didn't seem very realistic to me."
By the next day, Cyrus fans were vilifying Tritt, and the ponytailed Cyrus eventually responded, holding up a coin on the nationally televised American Music Awards last January, cleverly mumbling something along the lines of ". . . to my critics: Here's a quarter--call someone who cares." In addition to raising the hackles of Cyrus' fans, Tritt caught holy heck from the powers that be behind the Pine Curtain. He'd not only violated a sacred Nashville cow by speaking out--however deservedly--against a fellow twangster, but especially against the fellow who was bringing so much moola into Music Row. "I don't buy that," Tritt says now. "I can't have an opinion? Rock groups trash each other all the time--who cares? Besides, the whole thing's been blown meteorically out of proportion." Sure, but does he feel vindicated by the fact that, while Tritt continues to gather hits and accolades, Cyrus is well on his way to becoming one of the most magnificent one-hit wonders of all time?
"It all comes back to the song and the artist," Tritt answers. He pauses, sighs, and says, "Man, this is never gonna die, is it?"
At the same time the Cyrus caper was unfolding, Tritt was involved in the "Great Tonight Show Flap." In September 1992, Jay Leno's longtime manager and rookie Tonight Show executive producer Helen Kushnick demanded that Tritt (and fellow Kragenite Trisha Yearwood) cancel a scheduled gig on The Arsenio Hall Show or forever be banned from Jay Leno's guest chair. After Tritt and company refused, Kushnick dumped Kragen's clients from slated appearances on Leno. Kragen battled Kushnick's heavy-handed tactics in a well-publicized media melee and, eventually, NBC jettisoned Kushnick in favor of Tritt.